15 Misconceptions That History Buffs Say Are Way Too Common

Sometimes the entire human race can seem to be playing a game of telephone, where information gets repeated and distorted, but then to add insult to injury, most people believe what they hear at the end even if we know for sure what was said at the beginning was actually right.

If you’re someone who likes to make sure you’ve got your facts straight, check these 15 misconceptions about history and make sure you’re not spreading them around town.

15. It wasn’t exactly like that.

That the American Revolution was fought between British soldiers fighting in lines and american colonists using all sorts of cover and walls and strategy that the British were too dumb to figure out.

While there are instances of that, there are also instances of British troops doing the same thing, and of many (many) “set piece battles” where both sides would have fought in a “european” manner.

It’s very hard to get most people to stand out in the open and be shot at. Packing soldiers into linear formations restricts many of their choices—there’s less opportunity to flee when soldiers are elbow-to-elbow and have troops in front and behind—and close-packed formations make it possible for officers and NCOs to punish (or credibly threaten) anyone who breaks ranks.

Human beings fought in lines for 5,000 years, from the Greek phalanx to the nineteenth century. The last hundred years of camouflage and dispersed tactics are the exception, not the rule.

14. Poor, misunderstood Marie Antoinette.

I believe the exact quote is “Pardonnez-moi, monsieur. Je ne voulais pas,” or “Pardon me, sir. I did not mean to.” And yes, she stepped on the foot of her executioner as she was being led to the guillotine.

Marie Antoinette was a very complicated young woman. She was the favorite daughter of her mother, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, who was wed to Louis, Dauphin of France, to cement the new alliance between the French Bourbons and the Austrian Hapsburgs. After centuries of war and mistrust between France and Austria, she wasn’t particularly popular in France – as old habits die hard. She was popularly called “The Austrian Whore” by the French public. Young and lively and energetic, she loved lavish parties and nice things – to the point where her reckless and wild spending also earned her the nickname “Madame Defecit.” She fiercely loved her family – unusually so for her day, including her awkward and shy husband who was more comfortable with clocks than humans because clocks worked rationally and logically. But to anyone she viewed as a threat to her or her family, she was cold, aloof, and ruthless.

So when, suddenly, the French government under Calonne starts to reluctantly admit it’s bankrupt in the 1780’s, here comes a scandal at the same time: Marie Antoinette is spending hideous sums of money on a necklace. The Affair of the Queen’s Necklace helped to compound the assumption that the Versailles Court was rampantly out of touch (which they were) and that the nobles of the ancient regime had no concepts of economy or thrift (they did not), which – in turn – fueled popular fury and resentment. Meanwhile one of her favorite pastimes was dressing up as a peasant woman and role-playing a farmer’s wife in a pretend village on the grounds of Versailles. She apparently really enjoyed milking the cows.

I’ve always been of the belief that Louis and Marie were victims of circumstance. They were not overtly malicious to their subjects – there have been far more despotic and cruel monarchs in history – and frequently, grudgingly or not, did do good things; such as Louis ordering the royal bakeries of Versailles to work through the night to provide the women who stormed Versailles with bread. They were raised in a world of royal absolutism, but the world moved on without them – just as it would to Nicholas II and the Romanovs over a century later. Nothing they realistically could have done could have prevented their deaths as the Revolution spun out of control. Pandora’s Box had been opened, and the violent urges and impulses of the Revolution were already underway.

13. Just tall tales.

The fact that Shah Jahan cut off hands of his workers after they completed Taj Mahal.

There’s literally no evidence except for tell tales.

Many monuments were built after Taj Mahal under reign of Shah Jahan. Just think, who would work for you knowing that they’re going to lose their hands if they did a good job.

12. They still celebrate it, though.

French revolution storming of the Bastille freeing hundreds of political prisoners.

When in actual fact there were only 7 prisoners. (4 cheques forgers, a lunatic, a sexual deviant and a man who tried to assassinate King Louis XV 30 years ago).

11. Someone should have said it.

There is no evidence that Franklin ever said that beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. But it is a cool quote so I will continue to use it.

10. Not so scandalous.

The myth about the Vomitorium

The story goes that Roman nobility would go there to eat so much till they puked and would then continue eating.

It was just the name for the Colosseum exit.

9. I mean he wasn’t tall.

That Napoleon was short. Dude was 5″6′. Making him downright average for the European standard at the time.

A brief investigation shows this was a rumor that his enemies spread in order to deminish his reputation and how serious his subjects took him. Funny error, but still an error

8. At least back then.

That People thought the earth was flat.

Especially around the late Middle Ages, it had been well established that the earth was round since the ancient Greeks.

Apparently this was made up during the enlightement to show how dumb People were in the past because they were so religious. People also get it wrong when talking about columbus. The argument against his voyage was about the size of the earth. He was actually wrong and they were right.

7. I want to believe.

That the Library of Alexandria was callously destroyed in a big, dramatic event in which all of the ancient world’s knowledge was lost forever.

Like most things, the Library of Alexandria had its rise, its peak, and its ultimate decline, with highs and lows in between. It also certainly was not the only prestigious library in the world at the time, not to mention personal collections kept by the wealthy. To act as if all of the world’s knowledge was recorded one time only and then stockpiled in one place is ludicrous.

6. A complex reality.

WW1 trench combat was nothing like how most people think about it. The common misconception is that people stared at each other with machine guns until some idiot general forced his soldiers to run into machine gun fire and they all got brutally mowed down while the enemy cracked open a beer.

The reality is much, much more complex. Artillery did an excellent job of suppressing machine guns and clearing barbed wire, forcing defending troops to hunker in deep shelters while the attacking infantry were free to advance. As a result, the attackers generally had a pretty substantial advantage in the war, and casualty ratios support this- across the war, attackers almost always had equal or lower casualties than defenders.

What forced the stalemate was not that it was impossible to attack, but rather that it was impossible to defend against counterattacks.

Once you’ve taken the enemy’s first line of trenches(and they have much more than one line), because of your own artillery, it is now almost impossible to reinforce and consolidate your hard-earned territory. Your own artillery has blown apart the terrain between the trenches enough that it’s very, very difficult to get supplies or men across, and it generally doesn’t have the range to suppress enemy counterattacks further back(because if it did, then it’d be open to counterbattery fire, which would result in you losing all your artillery).

Ad a result, you now have to defend against a counterattack that does have artillery and the attacker’s advantage, and you don’t have any defender’s advantage because you haven’t had time to fortify your new trenches, and the casualty ratios swing right back against you.

5. I’m sorry, what?

Classics buff. It’s Pandora’s jar, not Pandora’s box.

I just learned this! It’s Pandora’s amphora but due to an early mistranslation it has become famous as Pandora’s box.

4. On the Titanic.

I’ve been studying the Titanic disaster for over three decades. Titanic comes up on reddit a lot, which I love because how cool that my nerdy hobby interests so many people, but the amount of misconceptions is large. This is no ones fault, nor is it ignorance, Titanic had the (un)lucky fortune to become a symbol very quickly, so very often what we think of as history is really folklore. That being said, here are the ones I see often.

There is enough evidence, good evidence, where we can say that William Murdoch most likely did shoot himself. The scene James Cameron shot is a direct recreation of witness testimony- multiple witnesses actually. There is a huge amount of first hand and second hand evidence that this happened. Why it’s thought to be a myth and why James Cameron had to apologize is actually another interesting part of the story but for the main question- in all my research, I’ve yet to see a fact based reason why we should think Will Murdoch was not a victim of suicide.
2)On the same note- yes Charles Lightoller lowered early boats without filling them- as he should have. It wasn’t incompetence or ignorance, there were many reasons why this was the best course of action and it was practiced throughout the night. To add- Titanic’s crew weren’t incompetent or unprepared, they were, quite literally, the best of the best.

3)There were lifeboat drills. Multiple. Every night at 6pm.

4)The 4th funnel wasn’t fake- it just served a slightly different purpose than the first three.

5) Titanic. was. not. speeding.

6) Boats were not filled by class.

7)Third Class was not locked below- but some of them thought they were. This is actually pretty interesting in that every view of this situation is the correct one. To refer to Cameron again- his portrayal of this is correct- depending on who you ask. It was miscommunication, not classism.

9) Coal fire damage- not a thing and the “evidence” is just … wrong.

10) The switch theory not only makes no sense, it is literally impossible.

11) Titanic wasn’t a cruise ship. She was an ocean liner 🙂

Many more of course, but these are the ones that pop up the most 🙂

3. The code talkers.

That Navajo speakers were the only Native American code talkers, and that they only served in the Pacific in World War II.

Native American code talkers first served in World War I. In WWII, the program expanded to soldiers from a bunch of tribes, and they served in all active combat areas.

And yes, the Germans knew about them in WWI. Hitler sent people to study them. The Germans told the Japanese they might encounter them in WWII. They just misunderstood how many distinct languages there are, and how many completely separate language families.

2. Not everyone measures time by Jesus’s life.

That AD means after death.

but if you were told they were Before Christ and After Death, then how are we suppose to label the 30 years between them?

1. Not so curvy.

It’s petty, but I hate it when people say that Marilyn Monroe was a size 12/14/16. This may have been true in the 1950s, but clothes sizes have changed A LOT since then. Reports of Marilyn’s measurements by her costumers noted that she was 5 ft. 5.5 inches tall; 35 inch bust; 22 inch waist; and 35 inch hips and 118 pounds. Of course her weight fluctuated, but it is simply dishonest to think that in modern times, she would have been considered “plus size.”

In today’s sizing, depending on where she’d shop at, she would be a size 00-4.

I’m glad I wasn’t committing any of these sins personally. *pats self on back*

What about you? Is there something that bugs you that belongs on this list? Lay it on us in the comments!